Tuesday 9 March 2021


If last week went into the 'pretend it means something because we won' file, our only proper venue practice match of the 2021 pre-season can be slotted neatly into 'it didn't mean anything because we lost'. Or the nearest wood-chipper. Your choice.

The good is that even though we lost comprehensively there are a list of excuses long enough to satisfy anybody from the people who always think the sky is falling to the lunatics who start every season thinking we might contend for a flag. I didn't learn anything from this game that I didn't already know, unless something tremendously NQR happens we're not going to win the flag but we're still neck-deep in the running for the top eight.

In theory I could have gone to Docklands to watch this low-end debacle play out live, but obviously the last two years have cured me of my decade long addiction to seeing every game in Victoria - no matter how meaningless - live. Instead of going to the city on three hours sleep (and once upon a time I'd have done it on none) I chickened out, activated the megawall, watched from under a comfy blanket and had no regrets. My compliments to everyone who helped bring us to the point where scratch matches can be watched from anywhere in the world.

Once I realised Docklands hadn't bothered to open the top level I was even less concerned about having missed out. Sure, the old virus seems to be under control at the moment (and nothing at all went wrong the last time I said that) and less than 8000 enthusiasts turned up, but forcing everyone to sit in the same area still seems counter-productive to the idea of social distancing. I'll certainly be trying to avoid sitting near other people all season. Mind you, that's got nothing to do with COVID-19.

Speaking of social issues, it's appropriate that the footy in a Melbourne game would be sponsored by 'Lifeline'. If we play like this in Round 1 they'll have to call in extra operators. For now, it was at the low end of the pre-season trauma scale. There were worrying signs, and you wouldn't be human if you weren't a bit scared about us finishing 17th again, but not worth throwing your toys of the pram about. Also, given that I tipped the Dogs to win the flag two weeks ago it would be hypocritical to throw a tantrum about losing to them now.

One thing that might have lured me out of the house was the Footscray debut of the Stefan Martin Experience. If I'd done my research beforehand and remembered that he was now playing for them. Given the lack of fanfare at the start of his career, the SME has done bloody well for himself, starting his 14th season at 34-years-old with a genuine flag contender. 

What odds would you have got on his 2008 debut that he'd go closer to winning a flag than any of his teammates? He's played four career finals, the rest of that side has the same amount since (McLean one at Carlton + Jones 3 in 2018). The fact that the guy we - eventually - replaced him with is a four time All-Australian shows that my nervous breakdown over trading him at the end of 2012 was unnecessary, but at the same time I'm also glad to have been vindicated in believing that he had more potential than we gave him credit for. And for this reason, I secretly loved it when he hands down thrashed Max in an early ruck contest.

For survivors of the Neeld era, that's where the warm and fuzzy nostalgic feelings ended, what came next should have been censored for our own good. Despite having literally zero permanent tall forwards to kick to, Tom McSizzle was given the chance to show his athletic capabilities by playing on a wing. Which was fine until he unleashed a Greatest Hits style howler that directly set up their first goal. 

I know the coaches were doing their best to get anybody in the league to trade for McDonald, but it still seems strange that the league brings in a rule that should give forwards more space and you don't give him a proper go at taking advantage. It might not work, at which point his 2018 will be elevated to Darren Cuthbertson levels of flash in the pan, but seems worth a go while our other first choice forwards are crocked. Obviously not.

While the Sizzle toiled at a reduced temperature all afternoon, Petracca was sent forward to try and exert some influence amongst the wreckage. This is a sound theory, with rotations even further down he can't spent all day in the midfield so why not try and get a score on the board early? Problem is this removes one of the few people out of our midfield who might accurately deliver the ball to a forward, leaving him dealing with the first pass rolling in at ankle level. He did reasonably well in the circumstances, forcing the ball back towards Sparrow for our first goal, but it was all very awkward. New viewers, get used to it. I don't care how the goals are kicked anymore, just as long as they happen.

If you were to just look at the scores from the first quarter you'd think we did quite well, but only the combined defensive efforts of May and Lever were keeping us in it. I need to see it repeated in as many real games as possible but this is what we're paying over a million dollars a year combined for. For May, nothing had changed from last season. He should get the million bucks on his own. Considering how often the ball was going towards him - and here's a free hint for other clubs, kick somewhere else - he was solid as a rock. Lever and his horrendous moustache did more of the FIFO spoiling and loose marking while May handled contests. As the third tall defender Tomlinson was... around. He was ok, which is many ways is the best you can expect from a third tall defender. Especially when we bought him to play on the wing.

Bank vault defence briefly covered up the fact that we were being beaten everywhere else. The most disheartening part of that was Harmes' struggles in the midfield. After screaming for him to go back there for the last year he was thrashed. Let's see it again when he's got more experienced partners than Double J James Jordon or Sparrow, but for now it didn't work, leaving me worried that I've backed the wrong horse. See also Charlie Spargo, who did two-thirds of stuff all immediately after I championed him.

Without a target to aim at - though Fritsch did do one of his traditional leads to the 40 metre boundary line - we didn't hold out for long. Somehow, after being beaten in almost every aspect of the game we levelled it at two goals apiece. Other than a two week flirtation with the mysterious 'Viney Vaccum' in late 2011, our kick-in tactic for years has been to roost it long to the tallest possible man. This set up the second via a strong mark by Jackson. It ended with a quick kick inside 50 by the Anal-Bullet and Fritsch being paid a technically correct but morally suspect frontal contact free. Because he was kicking from directly in front rather than Row Z it went through. Ergo, do that more. 

We were back in it - on the scoreboard at least - but there was nothing forward of centre to suggest that premiership markets would be thrown into disarray by the end of the day. A four point quarter time deficit was positively generous under the circumstances, offering us the chance to regroup and come back after the break with a new plan. Alas, teleportation of Oliver, Viney, Brown and Weideman into the side was not possible and things carried on as they were.

With respect to the contribution the missing players would have made, it looked a lot like last year. If there's a great leap forward in our future it's doing a ripping camouflage job. If the new rules were intended to artificially enhance scoring they hadn't factored in us playing without forward targets or the ability to get the ball down there quickly enough that the lack of big men didn't matter. At point it looked like a fast-break was going to come off, then Langdon got death valleyed by the surface, somehow also giving away a high tackle free after he was the first one tackled.

As much as I enjoyed the defence regularly getting us out of trouble, it was a bit grim that May and Lever were our top ball winners. If May played like this every week in real games he'd be the first backman to win a Brownlow since black and white TV. We all love to hang shit on umpires, but even they couldn't fail to miss how good he was. The cognitively-impaired All Australian selectors would probably have him in 78th position.

With nobody else looking likely to take a mark inside 50, it took Gawn to push forward to provide a target. Which he should be able to do more often this year if Jackson stays fit. For all the bullshit 'humour' about Gawn's goalkicking he's not bad at it for such a huge man, but this time he generously set Fritsch up on his own in front of goal. That's the sort of combination that he might have been thinking of when he tipped Bayley for the 2020 Coleman.

This was the opening ceremony for our best part of the day. In quick succession ANB got two - courtesy of Fritsch bringing the ball to ground against four defenders - and we were in front. It was in no way sustainable but I'm happy to smash and grab wins in both real and plastic games alike. Strangely, even knowing that this was the most frivolous, throwaway game since the last one, I found myself chewing a fingernail in tension. That's what writing the name 'Melbourne Football Club' on something will do to me.

While 17 of our players were narrowly holding it together, the same couldn't be said for Jay Lockhart's plums, ruptured in a seemingly innocuous collision. Unfortunately for him, knacker surgery is not only going to cost him several weeks on the sidelines, he's also about to find out that everybody other than the victim thinks a testicular injury is the funniest thing in the world. For example:

The lead didn't last long, with May's defensive wall only breached due to a two handed shove in the back. That decision was almost as bad as Chandler being kung-fu kicked out of a contest Toby Greene style. I'm not going to sully the name of the prestigious AAMI Community Series by sooking about umpires but come on..

That was about as far as our resistance stretched. It was a reasonable cover version of our last start against the Dogs, the backline kept us in the game for the first half before Footscray realised they were the far better team and ran away with it. May was best on ground that day too, so set a reminder on your phone for Saturday 29 May (appropriately enough), when he'll be required to dig us out of a sizeable hole against them again. And for a third time on Saturday 31 July, if the season hasn't been relocated to an island off the coast of New Caledonia by then.

While we've got a finals list on paper I don't fancy our chances in the short-term Waiting for Weideman and Ben Brown to save the day isn't feasible, by the time either one of them is back the season might already be shot. That leaves Oliver, Salem, Viney and Brayshaw to make a difference. Getting the three midfielders back in will help, but as we've seen in recent years you can win midfield battles until the cows come home and it's not going to mean anything unless players ahead of them can kick a score. In a season where the AFL has all but admitted they are trying to rig bigger scores, the idea of winning through Stalingrad style defence is noble but doomed to fail.

All of this is bad news for Simon Goodwin, who has not only adopted a midlife crisis haircut but has also given his critics the baseball bat they need to smash him by saying he wants to win "significant finals". Don't we all? The difference is we've got a lifetime to see it, he'll be out on his arse if he doesn't at least get close. There's far more to that article than one line so I'm not going to hang him for having lofty ideals. Plenty of others will be ready to go him with it though, and once the media gets involved the club won't be far behind. And with a premiership coach, a next big thing coach, and that bloke who used to be at St Kilda in the background we're not short on alternatives. I'd prefer we played well and it didn't become an issue. I'm sure there are people who deep down want us to lose so their theories on the coach can be proven correct, which is weird.

Though our lead had been washed away in a matter of seconds we'd still won the second quarter by a point and reduced the margin to three. Scope remained for a new plan that stopped the Dogs from dominating possession all over the ground. Then we conceded two goals in the first few minutes of the third quarter and there was no need for a new plan, it was just let's get to the end of this game without anyone being crippled and move on. 

The second of the quite good Marcus Bontempelli's early goals was another Fantastic MFC Flashback, this time to the first season of Paul Roos. Cast your mind way back to 2014, when a Young Bont snapped a goal out of his arse on the same ground to win a close game. This looked alarmingly similar, and it for once it wasn't just me piecing randomly historical scenarios together, Fox Footy dug out the replay, from their perspective to show two great Bont goals, from my perspective as a reminder of how much we cocked up that game. 

Playing the clip out of a break with no context played havoc with my brain, which took a few seconds to come to terms with the sight of James Frawley scrambling to try and stop him kicking it. As far as strange broadcasting moments go it was third for the day behind:

a) the male commentators having NO EARTHLY IDEA how to respond when Kath Loughnan cracked a joke about them not wishing her a happy International Women's Day.


b) Garry Lyon saying the club was hoping to get Kysaiah Pickett back from Perth as soon as possible when he'd just played in a VFL practice match. Maybe he thought WA stood for Western Aval?

Otherwise, there's no need for a Media Watch feature because everyone involved was a sensible and respectable broadcaster. If there's anything that's going to convince me to get off my arse and go back to games it's the prospect of having to listen to Dwayne Russell screaming like he's at the height of sexual ecstasy three minutes into the first quarter.

By Footscray's fourth straight goal I was ready for all available superstar players to be directed to the bench and handed a dressing gown. Finishing on 5.5.35 might have lured Freo into a false sense of security before Round 1? That is if we even play Freo. If one person in Victoria goes down with COVID (the Community Transmission Series) before they get here the borders will probably be shut down. That will probably leave us playing West Coast's scheduled opponent, creating a game against the Suns so dangerous that it should be viewed in a Hazmat suit.

It took Petracca to get us going again, busting forward and finding Chandler on his own inside 50. There was nearly a moment of high farce when KC (who swapped the Sunshine Band for the Dickhead Band after we drafted him) considered chipping over the top to Nathan Jones. Selflessness, sacrifice and all that sort of American bollocks is the mantra of the season but he was wise not to do it as the defender saw what he was up to and start to track back to cover Jones, to the point where any dainty pass would probably have been chopped off, leading to 10,000 people simultaneously demanding both men be forcibly retired. Instead, with the man on the mark running in the other direction Chandler just whopped it through the goals with a solid finish. I'm comfortable with playing him Round 1 until Pickett finds some form in the VFL. 

A six goal to one quarter was enough to ensure the Dogs were going to win (how often do you get a blockbuster comeback in a pre-season game? Other than us vs Hawthorn 2009 when I launched a shoe at somebody else's TV after the siren), and my interest in the final margin was waning. I just wanted everyone to get through unscathed (fat chance) and see a couple of the novelty players have a run. My Austin Bradtke dreams were not fulfilled, but Bowey had a couple of decent touches in defence and Bedford randomly appeared to set up a goal by Fritsch. Under the circumstances that had to do.

A limited bench, reduced rotations, and the lack of Damien Hardwick sized grapefruits to simply play short-handed left ample time for a crucial player to be seriously injured. Step (or indeed, collapse) forward the world's greatest defensive artist Steven May. He was left temporarily motionless after desperately trying to impact another contest when he should have already been towelling off in the locker room alongside Petracca and Gawn. It seems he'll be alright (though we've heard that before), but at the time I was ready to have the biggest sook over a pre-season injury since Schwarz did his knee in Albury.

As much as I welcome the return of the standard length quarter, my interest in the game was dead after that. Obviously they're playing 20 minutes again to help players get back into the swing of things after a year of playing AFLX quarters but it's still asking for trouble in a pre-season game. After May went down I spent the rest of the quarter panicking about who'd go off next. There should be a button that both coaches can press that ends the game. Or one for us that switched to non-stop rolling coverage of  trainers looking after May. Lockhart's balls could have all the privacy they required, this crisis demanded in-depth coverage.

When you're Melbourne even kicking a goal is fraught with danger. The contest where May was hurt would never have happened if we hadn't just added a token goal at the other end. Max kicked it, then was stooged at the ball up when the Bulldogs ruckman pulled out, let him take it, then waited just long enough for him to attempt a disposal before tackling him. You'd think an uncontested bounce would be a golden opportunity for a quick break out of the middle (perhaps not with the midfield we had here), but how often are ruckmen fooled by the other side not contesting? They should plan for this scenario because other teams would have seen this and thought "ah, there's an idea".

From that free came the kick inside 50 that led to May's clobbering and my blood pressure going through the roof. I can't even remember if they got a goal out of it. I don't really care, by now I was only watching for the off chance that either May would be declared fit or that one of our players would do something remarkable. The best it got was Jones putting through a junk time special that prompted Docklands to play Living On A Prayer. Which was appropriate for both his quest to play 300 games and mine to see a premiership before I die.

It was an ordinary performance, but nothing I saw changed my mind that we're a 7th-11th placed team -or that there will be much of a gap between those positions. We might not do any damage after sneaking into the finals but it will probably save Goodwin from the chop. And whether that's a good thing or not is up to you to decide.

2021 Paul Prymke Plate for Pre-Season Performance
5 - Steven May
4 - Jake Lever
3 - Christian Petracca
2 - Max Gawn
1 - Ed Langdon

Serious apologies to Fritsch and Neal-Bullen.

Final results
Assuming there's not some sort of remotely official practice match next weekend, that's it. Seems a bit sarcastic giving this award away on the basis of two matches, but 13 years on I'm still pleased to have come up with the Prymke name, and as such will be running it into the ground.

If the voting system allowed one game to be worth more than another, then May's performance here was worth double Gawn's at Casey, but it doesn't, ending with the softcock compromise of them sharing the award with Petracca, rewarded for consistency across both matches. Maximum becomes the first man to take the Plate home three times, while Truck draws level with Nathan Jones on two wins. I'm sure it's an honour they'll all cherish.

7 - Max Gawn, Steven May, Christian Petracca
4 - Jake Lever
3 - Kade Chandler
1 - Ed Langdon, Clayton Oliver

Next week
Presumably nothing. Maybe a VFL practice game where we can try to get Oliver's skull split on a barely turfed suburban ground at 9.10am Friday morning?

The week after that
Freo at the MCG on Saturday in a classic "if we lose people are going to go feral" match. It won't get as bad as Port 2013, but after a year away from live footy plenty of people will spend the after sinking bulk piss and be ready to go nuts at the siren if required. Let's hope it doesn't come to that, though I don't rule out charging down from the back of the Ponsford swinging a face mask loaded with a brick.

Never mind that the Dockers beat us last time and should be half-decent this year, dropping a Round 1 home game to an interstate team when we have an arsehole of a draw later in the season will go down like a fart in an elevator. 

I think we will win, but not without a titanic struggle. Oliver and Salem are probably the only certainties to come back in. Possibly Brayshaw but certainly not Viney or Brown. Christ only knows if Melksham or Hibberd are still alive, but not sure either are going to be the difference. And if May is hurt?

Final thoughts
This was slop but it doesn't detract from my desire to get the season going. Right now. Get Freo on a plane and play at 10am Wednesday if you have to.

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